Welcome -- Film Review

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PARIS -- The subject of Philippe Lioret's compelling social drama "Welcome" is those who are not -- welcome, that is. The bitter irony of the title is evident from first to last in the story of a young Kurd who aims to swim to England and the swimming instructor who tries to help him get there.

The movie hit French screens trailing clouds of controversy after a government minister complained of its sympathetic view of illegal immigrants and those who give them aid or shelter. But Lioret hangs his polemic on a strong, simple story line that will engage audiences worldwide and appeal even to those who take a more restrictive view than the filmmaker on such issues.

Twenty-two miles of water -- the distance from Calais to Dover -- prevent Bilal (Firat Ayverdi), a young Iraqi Kurd, from rejoining his sweetheart, Mina (Derya Ayverdi), in England, where he dreams of becoming a famous professional footballer. Bilal is befriended by Simon (Vincent Lindon), a fiftysomething former swimming champion who works as an instructor at the Calais town pool. Simon agrees to train Bilal so that he can swim across the Channel.

Simon hopes in this way to impress and possibly win back his estranged wife, Marion (Audrey Dana), an English teacher who helps run an unofficial soup kitchen for the hundreds of illegal immigrants who cluster around the port, all of them hoping to smuggle themselves one way or another into England to seek a better life.

He soon finds himself in trouble not just with his uptight neighbors, who object to his offering Bilal shelter for the night, but also with a local police inspector (Olivier Rabourdin), who points out that he faces a possible prison sentence of up to five years if found guilty of aiding an illegal immigrant.

Lioret is able to achieve this seamless blend of the domestic and the social -- the hopeless situation of the immigrants is portrayed with near-documentary realism -- thanks to an impressive performance by Lindon, whose characteristic shamble and hangdog expression have rarely been put to better use.

Laurent Dailland's nighttime photography evokes the limbo in which the unwelcome visitors exist, while the contained performances and the sobriety of the score remind us that these are individual destinies at stake. The movie offers no simple solutions, nor even a feel-good ending, but throws a cold light on the human tragedy that underlies many of today's headlines.

Opened: March 11 (France)
Production company: Nord-Ouest Films

Cast: Vincent Lindon, Firat Ayverdi, Audrey Dana, Derya Ayverdi, Olivier Rabourdin, Thierry Godard, Mouafaq Rushdie
Director: Philippe Lioret
Screenwriters: Philippe Lioret, Emmanuel Courcol, Olivier Adam
Producer: Christophe Rossignon
Director of photography: Laurent Dailland
Music: Nicola Piovani, Wojciech Kilar, Armand Amar
Production design: Yves Brover
Editor: Andrea Sedlackova
Sales agent: Films Distribution
No rating, 110 minutes